Some Passing Maniac

Wednesday 14 August 2019. I renew my passport. This is not because of any panic over Brexit, but because the ten year expiry date happens to be this month. I opt for the no-fuss renewal service offered by the Post Office. Contrary to the stereotype about the British, no true Londoner likes to queue.  Queuing in London is for tourists. Real Londoners know there’s usually a less busy version of whatever one wants, whether it’s a chain of cafes, a Post Office, a bank or an ATM. One quiet Post Office is in Grays Inn Road near Chancery Lane station. It’s hidden in the basement of a branch of Ryman’s, like a secret members’ club. There’s no one else there at all when I go today, even during lunchtime. Today I present my old passport, they take my photograph with a machine at one end of the counter, and it’s all done in five minutes.

Within the week, a new passport arrives in the post. It looks the same as the old one, with the same burgundy red colour. It takes me a moment before I realise there is one difference, though. The words ‘European Union’ are missing.

Evening: Drinks and Thai food at the Hemingford Arms with Shanti S., which warrants a selfie:

**

Friday 16 August 2019. To Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, to DJ for the wedding reception of Maud Young. I play many of my old Beautiful & Damned tracks. It’s a fun return to a previous life, but as with making music I don’t have any further interest in dj-ing. Passions can wax and wane across a life. Some people are happy doing one thing all their life, and I envy them. Others are drawn to paths not yet travelled, even if it means leaving old worlds behind.

**

Saturday 17 August 2019. Some old worlds are never quite left behind, though. In Russell Square today I receive a catcall from an older man on a bike: ‘Stop dying your hair, you poof.’

I wonder if that happens to Nick Cave?

**

Sunday 18 August 2019. To the Rio for Marianne and Leonard, Nick Broomfield’s documentary about Leonard Cohen and his muse. Mr Broomfield declares an interest early on: like Cohen, he too once dated Marianne. There’s a sense of bragging here, and indeed Mr B can’t resist showing photos that show just how attractive he was in the 1960s, like Liam Gallagher with a thesaurus.

As with all Nick Broomfield documentaries, the choice of interviewees is wonderfully suspect. We get the testimonies of sacked collaborators, spurned relatives, or just some passing maniac. Still, Mr B always makes his subjectivity clear. The ‘official’ documentaries try to pretend otherwise.

**

I visit a new bookshop and café in Dalston, ‘Ripley & Lambert’. It specialises in books about film. This might seem rather niche, but then ‘niche’ is now thought to be the way forward. Magazines on prog rock are thriving, while general music ones like NME have bitten the dust. A display about women in science fiction explains the shop name: Ripley and Lambert are the two female characters in Alien.

**

Monday 26 August 2019. A stiflingly hot bank holiday. I loaf in Dalston all day, only venturing out to see Once Upon A Time in Hollywood at the Rio. Mr Tarantino is acquiring a Dickensian touch with age. There’s an idealised little girl who offers advice on acting for Leonard DiCaprio: ‘It’s the pursuit that’s meaningful’. Sadly, there’s not enough of this sort of thing, and the end of the film is the usual Tarantino bloodbath. Except that times have changed, and this sort of trashy violence – particularly against women – is now more of a problem. Or perhaps not. Perhaps this is what his fans just expect. Comfort in the familiar, however problematic. All of which makes Quentin Tarantino the Boris Johnson of cinema.

**

Wednesday 28 August 2019. Pain and Glory at the Rio, the new Almodovar. In a way, this film is just as indulgent as the Tarantino, with much idolising of the culture of old films. But Almodovar at least nods towards the universal. There’s a beautiful scene early on of women washing blankets in a country river while singing, straight out of a painting by Sorolla.

**

Thursday 29 August 2019. Seahorse at the Rio, being a documentary on a British trans man as he goes about becoming pregnant. The birth itself is in a birthing pool, making a neat extra nod to the seahorse analogy. Though the film is subtitled The Dad Who Gave Birth, the experience is not previously unrecorded. Last year saw a documentary on a different trans male pregnancy, A Deal with The Universe. And in Seahorse Mr McConnell mentions being in a Facebook group for ‘seahorse dads’, plural. The logical next film would be a portrait of such a group.

The collective noun for seahorses is a ‘herd’, which seems too commonplace for such an unconventional and ornate creature.  A better choice now, given the analogy for pregnant trans men, would surely be a ‘pride’.

**

Sunday 1 September 2019. To the Posy Simmonds exhibition at the House of Illustration. I like her cover design for the 1966 gay-themed novel The Grass Beneath The Wire by John Pollack, with two men in dinner jackets, one with his arm around the other. Her 1981 book True Love is labelled as ‘the UK’s first modern graphic novel’.

The gallery also shows Marie Neurath’s illustrations for 1950s children’s science books. One caption has a response from an 8-year-old reader: ‘They are wizard books! I can read them by myself. I don’t need help from anyone.’

A third exhibition is Quentin Blake’s latest work, direct from his studio. There’s a John Ruskin children’s story, a wordless book of his own called Mouse on a Tricycle, a collaboration with Will Self titled Moonlight Travellers, and drawings for the corridors of Sheffield Children’s Hospital. And this is just Mr Blake’s work for the first half of 2019.

**

Tuesday 3 September 2019. My 48th birthday. I go to Rye and Camber Sands, mainly on an EF Benson tip. There is a beach café that does prosecco at eleven o’clock in the morning.

Dinner at the Mermaid Inn, then a look at Radclyffe Hall’s house.Back to Dalston in time for the launch of La JohnJoseph’s book A Generous Lover,at Burley Fisher. At 48, I am all about books and book-related places.

**

4 September 2019. I read an Observer review by Peter Conrad, which discusses Benjamin Moser’s new biography of Susan Sontag.  It seems the woman who gave the world ‘Notes on “Camp”’ wasn’t immune to moments of camp herself: ‘When, on one rare occasion, a man chivalrously supplied her with an orgasm, she complained that the sensation made her feel “just like everybody else”’.   

The phrase ‘a man chivalrously supplied her with an orgasm’ also says something about Mr Conrad. All reviews review the reviewer.

Mr Moser’s book claims that Sontag’s partner in later life, the photographer Annie Leibovitz, treated her to limousines, first class air travel, and an apartment in Paris. As Sontag never earned very much from her books, compared to Leibovitz, her partner served as her ‘personal welfare state’. Some welfare. Mr Conrad supplies these details to suggest Sontag was a terrible role model. But I see nothing wrong with being a kept intellectual.

**

Tuesday 10 September 2019. To Stanford’s in Covent Garden for the launch of Travis Elborough’s latest, The Atlas of Vanishing Places. I chat to Daniel Rachel. Last time I met him he was telling me he was writing a book on the 1990s Cool Britannia era, Don’t Look Back in Anger. The book is now out and has had good press. Mr R tells me tonight that he wanted the subtitle to contain the phrase An Oral History, but the publishers had vetoed this wording, worried that the average reader of a book on Britpop might not know what ‘oral history’ meant.  

I wonder if this is down to the image of Britpop as anti-intellectual and laddish (or laddettish). Both Gallagher brothers still seem happy to perpetuate this image, like the cool boys at school who belittled the geeks. When Brett Anderson of Suede received rave reviews for his memoir recently, the reviews had overtones of surprise. The implication was that, as he was a rock star from the 1990s, it was a miracle he could string a sentence together at all.

**

Monday 9 September 2019. A useful retort: ‘I’m afraid I don’t have the budget for any more unpaid work’.

**

Thursday 12 September 2019. To Kings Place to be in the audience for a recording of the podcast, Girls on Film. The film critic Anna Smith presents three guests – all women – discussing the latest releases. Two are actors, Ingrid Oliver and Tuppence Middleton, the other is the BFI’s Director of Festivals, Tricia Tuttle.

The rise of podcasts against mainstream radio hit a tipping point for me when a young guest on Radio 4’s A Good Read recently called the programme ‘this podcast’ – and was not corrected.

Drinking in the Kings Place glass-plated bar afterwards, looking over the canal and Granary Square. This shiny redevelopment, all plate glass and escalators, seems popular and utopian, if still finding its feet.

 **

Tuesday 17 September 2019. All work is acting work. The trick is not to be miscast.

**

Thursday 19 Sept 2019. I meet Shanthi at a cocktail bar in Islington, only to realise that drinks start at £9 – and that’s just for a glass of house wine. There has to be a word for the trick of trying to keep a straight face when such prices are communicated, and indeed for a staffer communicating them with their air of complete normalcy.

**

Friday 20 Sept 2019. From today I’m being paid the Living Wage (17k) to do a PhD. Less money than the office job I had ten years ago (which was 19k, in 2009), but my gratitude for not being forced to do unsuitable work more than makes up for it.

**

Monday 23 Sept 2019. I read an article about a young Instagram ‘influencer’, Caroline Calloway, and the world of pursuing internet fame for its own sake. This is new and yet not new. I’m reading about the Bright Young Things of the 1920s: pretty people whose lives and relationships were documented in the press without them appearing to actually do anything. So perhaps social media has just made that kind of lifestyle more democratic. Today, a 1920s figure like Stephen Tennant would have to maintain an Instagram account. Or rather, as seems to be the case with ‘influencers’, he’d have staff to ghost-write his posts for him.

**

Wednesday 25 Sept 2019. I read Olivia Laing’s Crudo. The use of Kathy Acker reminds me how Acker has become hip all over again. I think of KA’s line ‘Dear Susan Sontag, please can you make me famous?’, the most honest statement in the history of literature.

**

Wednesday 25 September 2019. Tonight, my seahorse brooch is described as ‘very Lady Hale’.

**

Saturday 5 October 2019: Checking in on Twitter after a gap one feels besieged by the sheer infinitude of the lives of others. All I can add in response is that I too am alive. Still.

**

Tuesday 8 Oct 2019. One of the delights of library books is encountering the traces of previous readers. In a London Library copy of Ronald Firbank’s Five Novels, from 1949, I recently found a ticket for Carmen at the New York Met opera house, dated October 2014. Today I’m reading a book from 1927, Movements in Modern English Poetry and Prose by Sherard Vines, which has an early assessment of Firbank. A slip of paper falls out. It is a handwritten note from the London Library to an anonymous reader, informing them that a couple of books they ordered are unavailable.

This would normally be dull, but the note is dated 20 April 1954. I can’t help scrutinising the handwriting of the librarian – a beautiful looping hand in fountain pen ink, and wondering about the lives of the reader and the staffer, and if this disposable note has now outlived them. I look up the unavailable books it mentions. Time and Place by Lyde and Garnett, a 1930s geography book which was ‘not possessed by the Library’, and A Myth of Shakespeare by Charles Williams – one of the Inklings – which in 1954 was ‘missing from the Library shelves’. I look both up in the Library’s catalogue. The Library never did acquire Time and Place, but the Wilkins is back in stock.

**

Tuesday 15 October 2019. The Booker Prize is awarded jointly. One book is Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale,which has had a huge amount of publicity already, including midnight bookshop openings with actors dressed as Handmaids. The other is Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, which hasn’t. If you can’t decide between two books in a prize set up to raise the profile of literary fiction, why not give it to the book that hasn’t already had its profile already massively raised? There’s something of the spirit of the times in this decision: a misplaced sense of righteousness, and with a terror of divisiveness.

**

Wednesday 16 October 2019. On a Sontag tip again, this time because of an excellent essay by Johanna Hedva on the White Review website. A quote by Sontag connects with my own thoughts:  ‘I wanted every kind of life, and the writer’s life seemed the most inclusive’.

**

Saturday 19 October 2019. Finish reading Firbank’s New Rythum (sic), his unfinished novel set in New York. There’s a couple of superb set pieces, such as the strawberry-picking tea party held in a ballroom, and the arrival at the city harbour of a huge nude male statue. I wonder if the latter inspired the end of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, Orton being a Firbank admirer. There was talk lately of a new statue to Orton in his home town of Leicester. He’d have like that to be nude, too, but with his socks on.

**

Sunday 20 October 2019. I listen to two long interviews with Chris Morris, on the Adam Buxton podcast. The latest Morris project is a feature film, The Day Shall Come, which I’ve just seen at the Rio. The film is in a similar vein to Four Lions: a conventional comedy drama, scripted and directed by Morris, and based on his research into real life incidents. Morris himself doesn’t perform in the film, and I come away missing his greatest asset, the one which made On The Hour so distinctive: his voice.

 **

Wednesday 28 October 2019. To the Tim Walker exhibition at the V&A, which ticks so many of my boxes: Tilda Swinton as Edith Sitwell (who turns out to be a relative of hers), Aubrey Beardsley, Angela Carter, Lord of the Flies, fashion, glamour, camp. In the exhibition shop, there’s a display of Mr Walker’s favourite books. These include The Swimming-Pool Library and Tintin in Tibet. And inevitably, Orlando.

**

Tuesday 29 October 2019. To Homerston Hospital for surgery. This is a septoplasty (with ‘reduction of turbinates’) to correct a deviated septum. The procedure is to address the nasal breathing problems I’ve been having for some years. I go under general anaesthetic. All is well, though I have to spend the next 14 days at home to minimise the risk of infection. My landlady K is my designated escort, in that she collects me from the hospital and checks up on me during the first 24 hours. It’s a level of concern for a tenant that is difficult to imagine from many landlords.

**

Thursday 31 October 2019. Halloween. It’s only today that I notice the first name of Kenneth Williams’s vampiric character in Carry On Screaming is Orlando.

**

Saturday 9 November 2019. Irritations over redundant adjectives. A book review in the Sunday Times refers to ‘a little novella’.

**

Sunday 10 November 2019. Less Boris Johnson, more BS Johnson.

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Sunday 17 November 2019. I read about the rise of gender reveal parties, and wonder if fans of Judith Butler hold gender congeal parties.

**

Sunday 24 November 2019. Today’s disproportionate irritation: Eve Sedgwick making the common error of thinking the song ‘Over the Rainbow’ is called ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ (Epistemology of the Closet, p. 144).

**

Sunday 1December 2019. I’ve turned my PhD thesis into an online Advent calendar. Every day in December I post an image on Instagram and Twitter, relating to camp modernism. Some of these ‘windows’ are writers like Gertrude Stein. Others are illustrations like Alan Cumming in Cabaret, to represent Christopher Isherwood. The resulting Camp Modernism Advent Calendar bears the hashtag #CaMoAdCal.

Link: https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/camoadcal/

**

Thursday 12 December 2019. I cast my vote in the constituency of Hackney North and Stoke Newington. The polling station is Colvestone Primary School, near Ridley Road market. I’ve voted here twice before for council elections, with barely anyone about. This time there’s a long queue that snakes out into the playground, some forty people strong, even at 7.30am. I put my X next to Diane Abbott, for Labour. It’s not without some guilt as I’d rather vote Green, but removing the Conservatives has never been more important. The local result is that Ms Abbott is re-elected, while the Greens increase their vote, no thanks to me.

As I walk away I am so convinced of the unsuitability of Mr Johnson and the nobility of Mr Corbyn that I feel even long-standing Tory voters will not bring themselves to vote Tory now. Only masochists.

**

Friday 13 December 2019. Masochism triumphs.

The subsequent days see constant post-mortems. I have to admit that I was ignorant of Mr Corbyn’s complete lack of appeal to voters outside of cities. My mother, who lives in the English countryside, is utterly unsurprised by the result. Whereas I am not immune to social media bubbles, little illusory worlds in which everyone appears to share the same opinion as you.

It seems incredible that between these two men Mr J appealed to more people than Mr C. Between Johnson’s Wodehousian blather and Corbyn’s inflexible sternness, it was the former that offered more space to more people. I thought that the public might at least give Corbyn a tentative go at the steering wheel, what with a decade of the Tories and several disastrous months of Johnson. But no: better the devil you know.

The overnight TV election coverage does not help. All the presenters and pundits seem unlikely to know what it’s like to, say, live in a rented room over the last five years. Channel 4’s programme is billed as an ‘alternative’ election night, but the pundits are equally comfortable and well-off, including Rachel Johnson, sister of Boris. In the 1980s Channel 4 was synonymous with proper ideas of the alternative: seasons of foreign films, a simulcast of Derek Jarman’s Blue with Radio 3, the Dennis Potter ‘Seeing the Blossom’ interview. Today, ‘alternative’ just means a different member of the Johnson family.

**

Tuesday 24 December 2019. I’m so easily tired that even the idea of fun exhausts me. Whenever I see an event is sold out, I feel the warm glow of a lucky escape.

**

Wednesday 25 December 2019. Christmas at Bildeston in Suffolk, visiting Mum, including a visit to Dad’s memorial in the village graveyard. Mum finds an old photo of myself where I’m slouching on the sofa in the living room, the cards on the wall dating the image to a Christmas past. I think it’s from 1989, so I would be 18. My hair is my natural brown, but I can tell it’s from my phase of slightly lightening  it with Sun-In spray – my gateway drug to full peroxide. I’m also wearing a black polo-neck jumper, a look I took to during my stage management trainee phase, first as an intern at the Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich (1989-1990), and then formally at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School (1990-1992). I now think I just wanted a job that allowed me to wear black polo-neck jumpers. By 1992 I had lost interest in the jumpers, and indeed in stage management. But working on productions of Company and Side By Side By Sondheim made me realise that I did want to be a writer of thoughtful and quotable phrases, beginning with lyrics for songs. I still use ‘Move On’ from Sunday In The Park With George as inspiration. There is also the pleasing irony of not moving on from listening to ‘Move On’.

**

Thursday 26 December 2019. I make the mistake of looking at Twitter over Christmas. Such relentless anger. It’s one thing to disagree about something, quite another to devote large amounts of passion arguing with people who have no intention of changing their mind, at least not on Twitter. Less energy on what one dislikes or finds offensive, more on what one likes and finds beautiful.

**

Tuesday 31 December 2019. The cover of the late Alasdair Gray’s Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983)has as good a New Year’s resolution as any: ‘Work as if you were living in the early days of a better nation’.

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Gets My Vote

Saturday 12th July 2014. I watch Rebels of Oz, an excellent documentary on four Australians who influenced cultural life in Britain: Clive James, Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, and Robert Hughes. There’s some 1960s footage of Ms Greer taking on Norman Mailer at a panel event in New York. The same event appeared in another documentary the previous week, one on the New York Review of Books. Then, the focus was on Mailer versus Susan Sontag, with Greer seen smirking quietly next to him. It’s a reminder that footage can only ever tell a truth, not the truth.

Robert Hughes was known for his TV series on art, The Shock of the New. But what shocks me is that he is shown wearing a double-breasted suit jacket over blue denim jeans. I wonder if being Australian helps.

* * *

Sunday 13th July 2014. Evidence of aging. At the Assembly House pub in Kentish Town, I pick up a leaflet for one of the events at the Forum, the venue across the road. It’s called ‘Indie Daze’, and is a day-long bill of different bands. All the performers are of a certain vintage, with their artistic zenith circa 1990. There’s The Wonder Stuff, The Popguns, The Flatmates, Jesus Jones, Power of Dreams, Darling Buds, and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. Two of them are doing that common practice of performing an old album in full: Jesus Jones are playing all of Doubt, while Power of Dreams are doing Immigrants, Emigrants and Me.

What intrigues me about this leaflet is how some of the bands have accompanying photos of them now, looking older (they must be all approaching 50 by now). But others, like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, use a photo from over two decades ago. I wonder about the reasoning: would a recent photo would be a kind of fraud, given it’s all about the songs of their youth? Or was it just a case of being unable to get new photos made in time?

I rather enjoyed the records of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin at the time, despite the polar opposite in their look to mine. They were a group of shambling, hairy and beery young blokes, and I was… well, not that. But I bought their debut album, and loved it for its vulnerably simple melodies, with a second bass guitar giving them an underrated, New Order-like sound. The Popguns, meanwhile, were much closer to my world aesthetically, on top of their fizzy and friendly guitar pop. Out of all the ‘Indie Daze’ bands, the Popguns are the only ones I still listen to.

* * *

Monday 14th July 2014. To Bildeston to see Mum. I stay over, sleeping in my childhood bedroom for the first time since Dad died. Mum offers to give me a file marked ‘Dickon’, full of school reports and other clippings, which she and Dad kept over the years. But I’m uneasy and decline. I’m uncertain enough about who I am now, let alone who I used to be. I don’t just mean that I need to get some sort of secure career going now, though I do mean that as well. Next visit, though. Little steps.

* * *

To get there, I take the Gainsborough Line train from Marks Tey to Sudbury, always a pleasure. A single track on a rural branch line, just the two carriages – though today they’re packed. The first stop, Chappel & Wakes Colne, forms part of the East Anglian Railway Museum. Vintage carriages and centuries-old waiting rooms suddenly appear either side of the modern train. After that it’s Bures, a village bisected by the Essex-Suffolk border, then it’s over the Stour river into Suffolk, and so to Sudbury.  Twenty minutes in all.

‘You missed the alpacas,’ says the old lady in the seat facing me.

* * *

Mum and I watch the DVD of the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary gala, along with the documentary that accompanies it. A highlight for me is Joan Plowright, reprising her speech from Shaw’s Saint Joan on the stage of the Old Vic, just as she did in 1963. There’s also a scene from Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce, which I didn’t realise had supplied Dad with one of his in-jokey catchphrases. An older couple have a light snack in bed before lights off. This turns out to be pilchards on toast, the only thing the husband can find in the larder. The wife is sceptical at first, then takes his offered plate and tucks in. ‘They’re quite pleasant, aren’t they?’ she says. ‘They got my vote,’ says the husband, munching away. Tonight Mum tells me that she and Dad saw a 1980s TV version of Ayckbourn’s play, and it’s this particular line that Dad seized on. After that, whenever there was a situation requiring Dad’s approval, he would often say, ‘gets my vote!’ So now I know.

* * *

Tuesday 15th July 2014. Bildeston. Mum and I visit the Museum of East Anglian Life, in nearby Stowmarket. Neither of us have seen it since its renovation in 2012. The museum is centred around Abbot’s Hall, a handsome eighteenth-century manor house, which hosts a permanent exhibition about local history. George Ewart Evans, the author of Ask The Fellows Who Cut The Hay, gets a whole room, his notebook on display a la British Library. But there’s also his big manual typewriter and his unwieldy reel-to-reel tape recorder, both making a mockery of today’s nimble devices. Writing used to be such a muscular business.

The temporary exhibition is Escape to the Country: Searching for Self-Sufficiency in the 70s. It’s a wittily designed show, with lots of beige and orange in evidence, and caption boards in that same kitschy typeface that the band Pulp used. But there are some serious themes here too. It illustrates how the Summer of Love generation wanted to embrace rural traditions as a lifestyle choice, and as a reaction against the suburban sprawl. There’s a still from The Good Life, reminding one how that popular TV sitcom was also a satire about a real social concern.

One photograph is of the residents of Old Hall in East Bergholt, a proper commune where I once stayed as a teenager. It was just like the Swedish film Together: canteen meals for twenty at a time, farm animals and allotments out the back, rooms rather than flats. And rotas on the wall, with everyone having a different job to do on different days. I remember a TV crew filming the rounding up of the livestock, and the producer telling me it was for a documentary on a brand new channel – Channel 4. So that dates my stay to the summer of 1982.

[Postscript: Rachel Stevenson writes to say that she visited Old Hall in 2013, and wrote about it in her blog. The link is: http://millionreasons.livejournal.com/2013/04/23/]

On the train journey home I make a point of looking out for the famous alpacas. And there, a little south of Sudbury and east of the railway track, is a field of the uncommon mammals in question. They resemble llamas which have shrunk in the wash.

* * *

Wednesday 16th July 2014. To the ICA for the film Mistaken For Strangers. It’s an unusual film – a rock documentary that is really a study of two brothers. The band it depicts is the US group The National, whose work I’m not familiar with, but who seem to be a bit like the British band Elbow: a genre I call Pleasant Enough Men With Beards. In the film, the serious and sensitive singer Matt Berninger hires his jokey and more uncouth brother Tom to be a roadie on their new tour.  Tom is more interested in making a film, or drinking the rider, or disappearing with people he meets, or doing anything other than his job. And so the film he makes ends up being more about him, and his odd-couple relationship with Matt. I love the title in particular, which certainly applies to me and my brother Tom. But it also reminds me how pairs of brothers, even quite different brothers, tend to both be unconventional and artistic, rather than one being artistic and the other being more drawn to, say, finance or law.

* * *

Friday 18th July 2014. I’m listening to the new Morrissey album, World Peace Is None Of Your Business, while reading about the events in Ukraine and Gaza. Morrissey’s arch take seems grimly relevant. There’s WW1 events everywhere at the moment, with it being a hundred years since the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand. ‘The War To End All Wars’. And yet here we are, still getting out our missiles. The sickening pointlessness of the attack on flight MH17 feels different to any Cold War incident, though. It could be the incident to end all such incidents. I think. I hope.


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Muppet Socks

Friday 21st February 2014

Am starting to notice how a university degree re-wires the mind.  Before I took the course, to me all non-fiction was either commercial (ie books I could understand), or academic (books I couldn’t). Now academic books are finally opening up to me, and it’s like being able to read a new language. The flipside, though, is that I started to get impatient with a lot of commercial non-fiction, wincing at their generalisations and agendas.  But then I discovered that’s possible to switch reading levels, like switching between languages. One can then enjoy a commercial book on its own terms. There is a danger in calling a book ‘too light’ – such a phrase says more about the reader than the book.

Writing this down, I smile when I realise that this is more or less the plot of Educating Rita. Still, the message of Willy Russell’s play hasn’t changed: higher education doesn’t change people wholly – it gives them more options for approaching the world, which is quite different. A bigger toolbox.

Saturday 22nd February 2014

I meet with Mum in the basement café of Waterstones Piccadilly, in the old Simpsons building. It’s a rare example of a non-place being converted back into a place-place. The café used to be a Costa, but is now run by Waterstones themselves, decorating the walls with nice old book covers, rather than the corny photographs of continental bonhomie that can splatter the walls of every Costa everywhere. It may still be a franchise café, but any café which isn’t a Starbucks, Costa, Caffe Nero or Pret has a definite sense of being somewhere in particular, as opposed to nowhere in particular.

Mum and I have a vegetarian lunch at the Coach and Horses in Greek Street. At the table next to us is a group of young Japanese women using their smartphones to take photos of their afternoon tea.

Then we go on to the National Portrait Gallery. The David Bailey exhibition is sold out, so we take a look at the permanent collection instead. The unflattering painting of Kate Middleton – the one which makes her look 50 – is displayed more matter-of-factly than I’d thought, tucked within a row of other portraits and not very well-lit.

We also stumble on an engrossing mini-exhibition about Vivien Leigh. I’m reminded that even though Gone with the Wind is meant to be the most successful film in the UK ever (going by sales of cinema tickets), I have yet to get around to it myself. That and St Paul’s Cathedral: on the list of things one is assumed to have done, but which the same assumption puts one off doing.

Sunday 23rd February 2014

My anxiety over the funeral hits me so hard that I spend the entire day in bed, trying to get over excruciating stomach pains.

Monday 24th February 2014

Dad’s funeral. I brave the morning rush hour Tube in order to get to Tom’s place on time, and am staggered by the awfulness of what must be a daily experience for so many. Not only do people have to brave the train journey with strangers bodies’ pressed against them throughout, but the journey itself is delayed at each stop, due to the mass of passengers preventing the doors closing on the first go. Whatever the rewards of being a rail commuter must be (a decent salary? a house?), to me they can’t possibly be enough. A commuter friend once told me, ‘You just get used to it’.  I don’t think I ever could.

So I go from the lack of respect for bodies per se, to paying respects to one particular body. Mum has insisted on no dress code, but I’m in a three-piece black suit and black tie anyway, because that’s me. I add a seahorse brooch, though, in case I’m mistaken for one of the crematorium staff.

Tom drives me to Bildeston to meet with Mum and Uncle Mike (Mum’s brother), and we all get into a hired people carrier. It’s then that I see Dad’s coffin for the first time, in the back window of the hearse in front of us.

Fittingly, it’s a cardboard coffin, looking just like one of Dad’s many boxes of comics in the loft. It also has a base made from the same sort of hardboard that Dad used, when he built scenery for Tom and myself to play with as children; rocket ships and puppet theatres. One of Mum’s homemade quilts covers the coffin, a beautiful science-fiction themed work with planets and stars. ‘I’m having that back before the actual burning,’ says Mum about the quilt. ‘It’s too nice!’

Seeing the coffin for the first time is the first of several moments when I nearly, but not quite, burst into tears.

We arrive at the crematorium at Nacton, near Ipswich. Then we get out and walk behind the pallbearers with the coffin, into the chapel. Unexpectedly, all the seats are taken: standing room only for Dad.

The Humanist host of the ceremony, Chris, does most of the reading. Then I follow with my own eulogy. At Mum’s request, it’s based on extracts from my diary, but I’ve added some of the liner notes from the Fosca album The Painted Side Of The Rocket, the album which features myself and Tom together. I wanted to make the point about creativity being something children do naturally, and which adult artists have to do on purpose. A quality of childlike unselfconsciousness – something Dad manage to manifest easily throughout his life, in both his art and his personality.

Then I read from the diary entry about Dad’s death, ‘Seeing Dad’, and I very nearly break down, twice. But only nearly.

We file out to ‘Monster Mash’, as promised. Dad’s favourite song, ‘Macho Man’ by the Village People, then follows on, with its opening line of ‘Body! Wanna feel my body, baby!’

Both are very silly records indeed for a funeral, and Dad, a fan of Joe Orton and Family Guy, knew this more than anyone else. We put little explanations about the choices – or warnings, rather – into Chris’s reading and mine, so one hopes the mourners understood.

* * *

In the courtyard outside the chapel, the mourners gather to chat. The first thing spoken to me after the service is, ‘Look! Muppet socks!’

A man in his seventies has collared me. He slips off his loafers to show off, yes, his Kermit the Frog socks. This turns out to be one of Dad’s schoolfriends from Clacton, a jokey gang raised on The Goon Show and who, like Dad, have managed to extend their in-jokes down the decades. One of them is wearing a luminous high-vis jacket: whether it’s for cycling or an outdoors day job I’m not sure, but it’s certainly a sign his own body has some years to go yet.

‘I’ll come visit you’ says one to the other as they part.

‘I don’t like threats’, says the other, deadpan.

Afterwards there’s sandwiches and tea at Chamberlin Hall, the new village hall in Bildeston. I chat with cousins I’ve not seen for decades, and some I’ve not seen full stop. Some live in Brighton, some in London, some in Sussex. There’s also people who babysat me in the village, or taught me in the local schools, and indeed the woman who helped Mum with Baby Dickon things when I was born, doing the sort of job that (I think) is now called a doula.

‘Do you remember me?’ is something I’m asked a lot. And for the most part, I do. Sometimes I don’t, and probably make a mess of pulling the right expression.

I still don’t know how I’ll be different now he’s gone. It’s still too soon.

In the evening, Tom drives me back to London.

Thursday 27th February 2014

Tom has made a little video memorial for Dad. It’s made up of photos of Dad (sometimes with me as a child), along with examples of his art. The soundtrack is an original instrumental written and performed by Tom:

http://youtu.be/PrvNFktrYpc


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On Camp: Gaga v Perry

Saturday 28th December 2013. To Bildeston to visit Mum and Dad. Dad is pretty much the same as he was the month before: restricted to either the sofa or the bed in the living room, still relying on an oxygen mask and round-the-clock care. But he’s also still very chatty, enthusing about the latest escapist films on DVD, his Christmas presents from the family: Iron Man 3, Man of Steel. ‘I’m still that boy buying the first issue of Eagle comic’.

What he never watches is that baffling default prescription for the bedbound, the type piped into hospital wards at the request of no one sane: daytime TV. No fan of Bargain Hunt, my father.

I make myself useful by organising Dad’s DVD collection, gathering them from several scattered piles around the house into a single cabinet downstairs, then arranging them into alphabetical order. He has about 150. We wonder where best to file The Amazing Spider-Man, the recent big screen frolic starring the nervy Andrew Garfield (who really should play the young David Byrne if there’s ever a Talking Heads biopic). Should it go under ‘A’ for Amazing, or ‘S’ for Spider-Man, given that Dad also has the Tobey Maguire triptych of a few years ago? We agree on the latter. Keep all the Spider-Men in one place, and hope that Mr Maguire will not take the implication personally that he is officially… Not Amazing.

(As I type this up, a real spider dangles down from the ceiling onto my hand. It’s a thin greenish little thing, certainly not one of those False Widow spiders that the British newspapers got so aroused about last year. This one sadly has not bitten me and so I remain without a hyphenated secret identity. I have now carefully relocated the interloper to the outdoors, via the time-honoured dance of Mr Tumbler and Ms Nearest Piece of Paper. Before I go on, though, I think I should type the words ‘unmarked fifty pound notes’ and ‘Tom Daley’ in case they too need to fall from above. Nothing. )

* * *

Sunday 29th December 2013.  End of year lists. My heroes of 2013: Young Ms Malala, obviously. The brave Mr Snowden too. Closer to home: Ms Jack Monroe, the food blogger turned fearless anti-poverty campaigner. And also Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP. For her involvement in the protest against fracking (for which she was arrested), for being asked to cover up her ‘Ban Page 3’ shirt in a Commons debate, and for voting ‘yes’ to the food bank investigation and ‘no’ to MPs getting a pay rise. I know I’m biased, but Russell Brand’s calling for people to not vote seems unfair on the MPs who are trying to change things for the better. Though admittedly, they’re not quite as visible as he is.

* * *

Monday 30th December 2013.  Shamefully, I waste time on Twitter as a distraction from writing an essay on Anglo-Saxon poetry. Still, I hope I am redeemed  when I provide the author Sarah Churchwell with a dull but useful tip about how to copy text from a Kindle e-book (you use the ‘Kindle for PC or Mac’ program, open the book within it, use the ‘search’ facility to locate the passage, then copy and paste as normal). Ms Churchwell wrote Careless People, one of my favourite books of the year, about the influences behind The Great Gatsby. She tweets back that the tip worked for her, with thanks. I know so little about computers that supplying this mundanity, and hearing it was of use, makes my day.

A second good deed on Twitter: Ms Amber, whom I slightly know from the world of dressed-up London parties, asks the Twitter world for serious definitions of ‘camp’. Ideally, not from the over-quoted Susan Sontag essay.

I offer two: ‘The lie that tells the truth’ from the title of Philip Core’s 1980s book. And ‘a charging of the tension between performance and existence’, from Gary McMahon’s 2006 book Camp in Literature.

The trouble then is that I find myself distracted from the essay with my own musings on the subject. Is Lady Gaga a ‘Queen of Camp’, for instance, as some quarters have described her? Using the McMahon definition, I’d say no. There’s no ‘charging of the tension’, no wink, no knowing smirk. For her, performance is existence. But she may become camp as she gets older, because age ups the tension. A case in point is Grace Jones: all Gaga-esque performance when she was young, now very much camp. Katy Perry, on the other hand, is camp. She has that charged quality of self-awareness, finding the line where the self meets the performance, and then exaggerating it. That’s camp.

All this comes to me when I should be thinking about translating Old English from the Exeter Book.

* * *

Tuesday 31st December 2013. I meet with Laurence Hughes, up from Oxford. Mulled wine at The Flask in Highgate Village. He thinks I should take the academic thing further, doing a Masters and so on when I graduate. He says I ‘look’ the part of an academic. Perhaps in my case it’s just the air of an inability to cope with the physical.

At home, I work on the essay, then take a Nytol sleeping tablet, put in earplugs, and sleep through the fireworks. It’s the happiest New Year’s Eve I’ve had for some time.

* * *

Wednesday 1st January 2014. I start the year by appearing in the Guardian, to my surprise and squealing delight.

Or rather, I appear on the Guardian website, as the article in question is not in the printed newspaper (I buy a copy to check). Funny how prepositions work with new technology. It’s in the paper, but on the website. Or in an article on a website. Anyway.

The article is Travis Elborough’s Top 10 Literary Diarists. Here’s the link:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/01/travis-elboroughs-top-10-literary-diarists/print

I am included along with Samuel Pepys, Alan Bennett, Elizabeth Smart and Virginia Woolf.

* * *

Thursday 2nd January 2014. A few weeks ago I reviewed a graphic novel by Oscar Zarate, The Park, for The Quietus’s comics round-up column. The book is set mostly on Hampstead Heath. Here’s the link:

http://thequietus.com/articles/14192-behold-december-quietus-comics-round-up-column

Having been reminded about Elizabeth Smart’s diaries by the Travis Elborough article, I look them up at The London Library today. The first volume, Necessary Secrets, is a work of art, reading more as fully-formed literature than as a hastily jotted-down journal. It’s so close in style to her novella By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept that it deserves to be considered on the same level. Yet it’s been out of print for over twenty years. I recall how the Morrissey song ‘Late Night Maudlin Street’, from his album Viva Hate, is full of quotes from By Grand Central. No mention of Ms Smart’s influence in his Autobiography, sadly.


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